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Reading & Listening to Cape Cod

Cape Cod does not appear on my CV. I study alpine plant ecology — my postdoc research is literally founded on carrying heavy things to high lakes — and the hooked peninsula of the Cape, curling into Nantucket Sound and pointing back towards Boston Harbor, is mostly beach and salt marsh and very light on high ground. When I’m on the Atlantic coast, I am in Acadia National Park. I grew up in central Massachusetts, where by law I think every baby shower must include a hardcover copy of Make Way For Ducklings and every childhood needs one bad sunburn from a Cape Cod beach (mine was Hyannis Port). But while I haven’t thought much about the landscape of the Cape in years (haven’t visited since 2014), this past week two journalism projects brought me back and reminded me of the Cape’s outsized influence on my own career in ecology.


Postcard of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Boston Public Library, Creative Commons.

First, the Cape was recently featured in a short documentary and intensely immersive online news story. Reporters from The Boston Globe spent several months this summer researching the effects of climate change on Cape Cod. They interviewed scientists, fishermen, locals, and business owners, and followed the stories of salt marshes, beach erosion, nor’easters, and changing fisheries. Nestor Ramos’ story, “At the Edge of a Warming World,” is a stunning and thorough look at climate change across the Cape, from Bourne to Provincetown. I’m teaching a course on the science of climate change for non-science majors and I rearranged my syllabus after The Boston Globe published this story. That is how much I love these pieces — five weeks into teaching a revamped course, just as I had settled into the semester, I threw out completed lesson plans so that I could devote a whole class to “At the Edge of a Warming World”. The documentary and the immersive video-and-photography online experience of Ramos’ story are only available to The Boston Globe subscribers, but you can read the story at the Pulitzer Center website — it’s part of the Center’s Connected Coastlines Initiative supporting reporting on climate change in coastal communities.


Early in “At the Edge of a Warming World” you are introduced to Liam’s, a clam shack that stood on Nauset beach since the 1950’s, and the March 2018 Nor’easter that wiped away 80 feet of beach and damaged the understructure beneath the restaurant. The building, once set way back from the ocean, barely survived the storm and the town tore it down later in the spring. Several students in my class shared their memories of Liam’s. There was this sense that a lost clam shack suddenly brought five weeks of reading and figures from the Fourth National Climate Assessment into focus. Climate change became intensely personal. The documentary is full of these moving interviews and powerful images from the Cape. I’ve never been to Liam’s, but I felt a similar nostalgia watching the ornithologists banding whimbrels in Wellfleet salt marshes. Cape Cod is not on my CV, but it is the first place I tried field biology. Wellfleet is a part of that geography. I can’t even remember the actual field lab assignment, but in the summer of 2000 I stood ankle-deep in cordgrass and I’ve been a field biologist ever since.


Cape Cod is not on my CV, but I’m beginning to think it should be. My first field course was a summer marine biology program in high school with field trips to Cape Cod and the Maine coast. Looking back, the Maine coast obviously looms large — I’m currently a Second Century Stewardship Fellow at Acadia National Park. But the Cape Cod trip was foundational. I remember reading about the dance of ice sheets, morraines, and outwash plains in the USGS booklet Geologic History of Cape Cod and it was my first inkling that geology was ephemeral, that kettle hole ponds might hold clues to unravel the history of a place.


The author (white tank top) and her best friend since childhood (red hat) demonstrate how not to measure sand dunes on Cape Cod in 2000.

I loved that summer course, but at the time it was hard for me to untangle my interest in field science from the general feeling of satisfaction that two of my best friends and I had engineered a way to spend the summer together, mostly outdoors, while our parents thought we were being “productive.” None of us became marine biologists. We stayed in touch with our teacher though, and in March he emailed me to say that he had a current student working on an independent project on shark, seal, and human interactions in the Cape Cod waters. This student was writing an op-ed for the Cape Cod Times, and would I mind reading it over and offering feedback? This is how I learned about the proposed seal cull, a scheme to reduce the food supply (and thus the local populations) of great white sharks. By “simply” re-writing the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the seal cull would supposedly reduce shark attacks on the Cape. (The op-ed was published in April, by the way, and I think Emma did a great job!)


I had mostly forgotten about those spring emails and Emma’s op-ed until I began listening to Outside/In’s episode “Cold, Dark, and Sharky.” Again, I had the feeling that I possessed Cape-specific expertise that I hadn’t fully appreciated, only this time it was about sharks, seal culls, and the author of Jaws. Outside/In is a podcast produced by NHPR and the Cape Cod episode dropped the day before The Boston Globe published “At the Edge of a Warming World”, but I didn’t start listening until the day I taught the Globe’s documentary short in class. When I started playing “Cold, Dark, and Sharky” on my walk back to the T after teaching I couldn’t believe the serendipitous connection — I had just spent a week re-writing my syllabus and crafting a lesson plan around climate change on Cape Cod and now I was basking in the glow of a well-taught class and listening to a new extremely well-produced story about Cape Cod.


I have another ecological connection to the Cape. My senior year of college, I took a two-semester biology seminar called Biological Conservation on Cape Cod and the Islands. The seminar was taught by a postdoc (I haven’t read this PNAS paper, but I agree that postdocs are stellar mentors). I enrolled because my major (Environmental Science and Public Policy) was biology-adjacent, my friend wanted to take it and I’d already bailed on a different seminar with her*, and there would be field trips. This seminar taught me how to read a scientific paper (laying the foundation for #365papers, one Wednesday night meeting at a time), how to core a tree, prep the core, and measure the rings with meticulous, old school — we’re talking dissecting scope and ruler-style — precision. I learned about paleoecology and palynology and the glacial geology lessons that I’d first encountered in my high school marine biology lesson slowly resurfaced. It took another decade, but eventually I did become a paleoecologist. But first, I’d reunite with the postdoc who taught that seminar; he became a professor at Emerson College. He hired me as an affiliated faculty to teach Climate Change in 2014 while I worked on my dissertation. I returned to teach Climate Change again this fall, adding Cape Cod to the syllabus. Looking back, it appears that Cape Cod is the landscape that circuitously led me to Emerson — and perhaps my entire career? — in the first place.


Coast Guard Beach, by Capes Treasures, Creative Commons

Reading “At the Edge of a Warming World” and listening to “Cold, Dark, and Sharky” back-to-back has been an incredible experience. There are few more nostalgia-inducing moments than teaching your first field sites to the next generation of students. But, to be able to teach with science journalism that is so deep, so well-researched, and so beautifully produced is a whole new level of nostalgia. All the emotions associated with your place are heightened and replayed in hi-fi. The Boston Globe and Outside/In took the landscape of the Cape and the thorny, tangled relationships between people and nature in this place, and brought it all to life. I found myself remembering an esker where I ate a half-stale muffin from the bottom of my backpack, the tourist trap in Provincetown where I got a henna tattoo of the sun on my shoulder, the bakery where we stopped on the way to the ferry to core dwarf beech trees, the low light in the New Bedford whaling museum and the bright sand dunes outside. When I tell my origin story about how I became an ecologist, I usually talk about hiking in New Hampshire, or the childhood trip when my grandparents took me to Acadia**. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned Cape Cod in those conversations. Clearly, I need to fact check my own origin story.


I’m too completely in the choir to be the target audience for either “At the Edge of a Warming World” or “Cold, Dark, and Sharky”. In other words, I wasn’t surprised by the reporting; I was already familiar with most of the science in both stories. I had heard that you could earn a dollar per nose during the seal bounty days, understood that the waters around Cape Cod are warming faster than 99% of the rest of the ocean, knew that climate change made Nor’easters more powerful. But, I recognize that I am a weird case — the occasional academic Cape Cod enthusiast who has apparently forgotten, or maybe just never appreciated, the instrumental role of the Cape landscape in her scientific training. The power of the storytelling was so apparent when my students talked about their reactions to “At the Edge of a Warming World”. The Boston Globe and Outside/In took these semi-familiar landscapes and crafted these stories that allowed me to see the Cape again from new perspectives. To have your original field site professionally science communicated back to you — twice! — is a really wonderful and jarring experience. I already appreciated the hard work of science communication in general, but these two stories impressed me in super-specific, place-based, deeply authentic ways. Read and listen to them — and support your own local science journalists. They may just help you re-write your CV.


Banner image: Cape Cod fences by Patrick Franzis, creative commons


*I very much regret bailing on the other seminar — it was taught by Amitav Ghosh, and the Ibis Trilogy later became my three favorite books. My friend took both seminars; I totally could have double-seminar-ed too. Sorry, Rachel! You were right!


**The summer after my grandparents took me to Acadia, they rented a house in Hyannis for week and what I’m learning from writing this post is that my grandmother spent my childhood picking out future field sites for me.

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